In early March, I visited The Rashi School in Dedham. I spent an hour with five student leaders in grades six through eight to talk about social justice. We talked about the issues that matter most to kids today, ranging from gun control just weeks after the Parkland shooting to the environment.
As I told my colleagues when I got back: These kids are phenomenal. Articulate. Poised. Socially aware. Compassionate.
If you’ve ever wondered what kids today worry about, read on. This is our discussion, and this is our future.
JewishBoston: We’re going to be talking about social justice, which is a broad concept. I want you to feel candid; I want you to feel comfortable defining it however you want. Let’s go around the room. When you think of social justice and what’s going on in the world today, what issues concern you the most?
Liza: For me, gun control is always one of the things. Especially with the shooting in Parkland just a few weeks ago. So that’s kind of in my mind right now. But I feel like mostly, the forever one, especially in America, but in the world, just to have the same rights. Whether it be with immigration laws right now and how it’s very difficult for people to actually come into America where, in my opinion, it shouldn’t be so difficult. Also, LGBTQ rights and just everyone to have the same basic rights and freedoms that they should.
Molly: For me, it’s global warming. That’s very important to me. Women’s rights and LGBTQ rights, like Liza said. And gun control as well, because it’s difficult for us as kids to think about the school shooting a couple weeks ago and be like, that could have been us if you think about it.
Eitan: For me, first and foremost, I think the most important thing is global warming. First, you’ve got to save the world and then save what’s in it.
JB: That’s a good way to put it.
Eitan: Yeah. Also, after that comes gun control and probably immigrants. I think immigrants are an important topic. With global warming, my dad scuba dives every now and then. I scuba dive. The ocean is a beautiful place and if we don’t stop global warming, that will not stay that way for too long.
Allie: I’m very interested in marine biology, so I think that, sure, we all are familiar with the topic of global warming, but no one is doing as much about it as they say that we should. I think that’s a topic we should focus on more often. Also, there’s more than just global warming. Other than the fact that global warming is occurring, there’s also stuff like deforestation…I mean, we’re having trouble with keeping so much life alive because we’re focused on so many other issues. So, we’re talking about pollution and things like that, that we can reduce, but no one’s doing that, no one’s taking that action as much.
Kobi: I agree with Eitan that you have to save the world and then save what’s in it, but gun control, all the things that Allie said and the rise of anti-Israel and anti-Semitism, that people are doing much less about… They’re focusing on one thing, even though there are many things that have to be focused on.
JB: This is a broad array of issues that you’re interested in. How do you actually act on them or express them? Have you been activists in your own lives in any way? Do you go on social media? Do you talk to your friends? Are you part of any clubs that support activism? How do you deal with it now?
Liza: I, obviously, talk to my friends about it. I try to do what I can within Rashi, especially. This past summer, I traveled to Peru with my family, and we volunteered in an orphanage there. I do my part to help people who are less fortunate than I am.
JB: Tell me about your trip. Was it your parents’ idea? Were you part of a larger group?
Liza: It was my parents’ idea. We did it through an organization called Global Volunteers. They have projects all around the world, so we traveled to Peru with a group of pharmaceutical students at a school in New York, and they did some seminars there about hygiene for the kids of the orphanage. So, it was them, my family and one other family with kids around my age. We were there for a week. You could do it any weeks throughout the summer. That was a really meaningful experience for me.
JB: Did it change your perspective?
Liza: It definitely did. Like, being there eight hours a day, every day, for a whole week, and then coming back here where, you know, I go out to my house and I go to Rashi every day. Just seeing how different it is. Yeah. And what all the kids had been through.
JB: What did you do for them when you were volunteering?
Liza: When we were there, you could work in the kitchen and help make food for them. Actually, before I came there, I collected supplies to bring because they also have a school there for the kids. Then we also worked with the toddlers in the morning, just kind of keeping them occupied and giving them more of a one-on-one connection because they have staff there, but definitely not enough for the kids to get the attention that they would and that they should. So, we did that and we kind of fed the toddlers. That was a really meaningful experience for me.
Molly: I talk about all of the issues that I feel passionate about with my family a lot. We voice our opinions even though they may be different sometimes, just when we are together. Also, Liza is helping to organize a school walkout on March 14 for all the Parkland victims.
Liza: Me and another seventh-grade student kind of brought it to the middle school, went and talked to the head of the middle school, and kind of made it a little more organized.
Molly: I’m trying to support that and help make it easier in any way possible to try and get people to know about it because it’s an important issue, especially for me, because I feel strongly about gun control and I think that the law should change in some ways. To do this as a nationwide movement is really important ‘cause it will get the attention of the people who can change things.
Liza: I feel like also especially because it’s organized by mostly kids. Kids are advocating for what they feel is right and that’s such a meaningful issue for me. It’s not like adults say it, like, “This is what you should do at the school.” It’s the kids at the school saying, “This is what we’re gonna do because this is how we feel and we want to make a change.”
Allie: Instead of a bat mitzvah party, I chose to have everybody come dressed more casually and to work at Cradles to Crayons for a few hours. We helped a lot of children. And it’s also fun, so that’s the kind of thing that’s become a part of my life. Like last summer, and I’m hoping to do the same this summer, I spent a few weeks in Colorado on a service trip; it was also a hiking and adventure trip. We helped in a lot of animal sanctuaries. We spent a lot of time with wolves.
JB: Was that scary?
Allie: No, I loved it.
Molly: That’s so cool!
Allie: Yeah. I mean, we were working on and talking about how some of the little things we can do can affect a whole community. And now this year, I’m thinking about what I want to do. I want to do a trip like that again, and I want to go somewhere where I can dive and be in the water because that’s something that I want to focus on. So I’m looking at a lot of trips that require us, one, to, like Eitan was saying, clean up the earth and collect and get rid of trash. Two, to be rebuilding life and habitats. There’s a huge coral reef and marine habitat loss that’s occurring, especially because of pollution. Even in the places where we can’t collect all the trash or whatever, we can help to rebuild structures that can encourage coral to keep growing so that marine life can continue.
Also, I do a lot of work around brain tumors because my sister, she’s three years older than me, suffered from a brain tumor when she was 3 years old. Our family wasn’t as affected from it as others are. You know? Because it was reasonably mild and she was treated and she’s totally fine and normal today, but so many other people are experiencing this differently, so I work to raise money and I participate in events.
One memory of a trip I was on: I was in Hawaii a few years back. I think I was in like fourth grade or so. I remember just being bored for a few hours because my aunt and my mom were sleeping and whatever. My first instinct was that I should go find something and sell it and raise money, instead of, “Oh, I should go to the pool.” I made little flower crowns and sold them for $2 and made $100.
JB: That’s very industrious of you.
Kobi: Every year for Hanukkah, my grandmother buys me and my two sisters a kind of animal, like a goat, that provides cheese and milk for a less fortunate family. Or a chicken for eggs for a less fortunate family.
JB: When you think about other kids or teenagers or even adults—it could be your peer, it could be a grown-up—who do you admire, who are voices for social change, who do you think of? Who do you really respect?
Molly: I think of my mom. She works a lot with CJP and other Jewish organizations. She works with Gateways to help provide a Jewish education for kids with disabilities, and she just helps to raise money for causes that she believes in, and she’s always taught me to not keep everything for myself; no matter how much money you have, you always have enough to give.
Allie: I actually think of my sister, who’s only 17. She’s the one who had a brain tumor when she was 3. She just seems like a normal kid to me, but at the same time she’s such an upstander, and she works so hard to support other families that are going through the same thing. One of our friends, he has been suffering, and still battling cancer, since he was very, very young. He’s been suffering a lot more recently, and his family doesn’t really know how to act about it.
Since the very beginning, [my sister] has been visiting their family often, and we’ve become really close with them. She spoke at the Heavy Hitter Dinner for the PMC [Pan-Mass Challenge] last year. It was her first time doing the PMC. She was 15. She was the youngest survivor to be riding, so that was a really big deal for the PMC and for her. She worked really hard to get there. She was on a tandem with my dad.
JB: What don’t adults understand about what it is to be a teenager in this country right now?
Liza: Adults always, obviously, advocate for what they want and try to make the change, but, like, teenagers, like high-school students, but even as young as us and maybe even a little younger, we have our opinions and we also gotta advocate for what we want! We should be listened to, not more, but equal to everyone else who has a strong feeling about something that they feel like should change. Even though we’re younger, we still have our opinions and our ideas, which, just because we haven’t been alive for as long, doesn’t mean they’re not as valid and can’t make as much of a change.
Allie: Our opinion and our voices shouldn’t be disregarded.
Molly: It’s difficult to get our opinions out there, because adults don’t always listen to what kids have to say. We’re viewed as less important and because we have less experience with life in general. Not less important, but, like, our opinions aren’t really formed yet, even though we do have very strong opinions.
Allie: Also, though, we’re dedicated. You’ll be like, “Oh, I want to go do this and to help other people,” and adults will be like, “Yeah, OK, you’ll do that for a little while.”
Liza: Then you’ll wanna do something else instead.
Allie: Exactly. But I think that, especially if people and children are pushed more often to do these activities, instead of just being like, “OK, you’re not serious about that,” we can be dedicated and committed.
Molly: Everybody always says children are the future. If we’re the future, why don’t you listen to our opinions?
Allie: This might be switching the topic a little bit, but it’s along the same question. I find that there’s a big disconnect between generations about LGBTQ and how we think about that.
Molly: Yeah. I definitely agree with that.
JB: Can you say more about that?
Allie: Because we’ve been trained. Not trained, but we’ve grown up kind of understanding this subject a little more, and even if we didn’t necessarily think that was the case, I think a lot of kids think of it as, well, OK, if that’s something they’re gonna do, then we should support them and say OK. Whereas a lot of adults will respond with, “Why would you do that?”
Liza: Yeah, I feel kinda the same. I have a family friend. One of them is transgender. When I saw the person after they [transitioned]…it wasn’t weird for me at all. For me, it felt more normal and he felt more comfortable. Obviously, if that’s how he felt then that’s how he felt. It doesn’t make him different, it just makes him like who he feels like he is.
Allie: Yeah, I saw something recently that I thought was really interesting that was about, like, why do gay people have to come out to their parents and straight people don’t?
Allie: You know? Why don’t I go up to my parents and be like, “Hey, mom, dad, I like boys.” Why aren’t they like, “Oh my goodness?”
Liza: “Oh, my God, really?”
JB: That’s a good point.
Liza: It’s not weird to us or as big of a deal. It didn’t even occur to me that that would be a problem, that people wouldn’t be accepted for basically saying how they feel and for expressing how they feel.
JB: On that note, I want to redirect just a little bit as a final summing-up question, speaking of taking kids seriously. The Parkland shooting has gotten a lot of attention, and this is really a student-driven movement. What do you think we could learn from these advocates? How can we better amplify your voices? You guys have said some really interesting stuff. What can we as a country do differently, beyond taking your opinions seriously?
Eitan: People should listen and people should join these movements. It’s awesome that this is a student-led movement, but it’s not that only students have to do it. Everybody should.
Liza: Who cares who leads it? If you’re advocating for rights or advocating for a change, whether you’re a student or a man, a woman, or whoever you are, for the most part, it doesn’t really matter.
Allie: I think that apart from not disregarding our opinions, I think allowing us to take action because, again, we don’t have the same power I think, that like Liza and Molly are organizing, you know, the walkout. A lot of students have proposed that to their schools and their schools have been like, “No, you can’t do that because we have classes!” I think it’s important to let students take action and kids take action.
JB: I grew up in an age where in high school, I did not have Facebook, texting, Snapchat. If you can believe it, there was nothing like that. We had an internet that you dialed up and it made a noise, and if somebody called you on the phone, it disconnected your internet connection. You guys have never known anything different, really. So, I’m asking this from a perspective knowing what life was like pre-social media, and in ways it was better and ways it was worse. What is social media? What role does it play in your lives now in terms of activism?
Molly: It helps me to know about stuff that’s going on, but it wastes time and causes a lot of drama, which is not great.
Allie: It’s a way to save events.
Liza: Yeah, but also it kind of shows what you’re advocating for and trying to get other people to feel the same way. You know, writing down how you feel and how you think, if you want a change. I feel like social media kind of helps that spread faster.
Molly: It’s kind of like an outlet.
Liza: Yeah, like an outlet to kind of say how you feel.
Kobi: It gives you a voice.
Allie: There’s always someone who’s listening.
JB: Can we just go around and say what is your biggest hope for the future? How are you guys going to change the world? What do you hope is different?
Kobi: Gun control is a big one because sometimes some people have fears of just walking out and walking their dog or walking their cat or whatever you do outside. And sometimes people fear that they’re going to get shot because so many people could have a gun, and people don’t necessarily need those guns. They just have it for violence, because people grow up in violence or crime, so they learn to be violent.
Allie: I think that I want people to realize how much they can do and how little they’re doing and to change the way they live and they act. To change their lifestyle in the smallest and easiest way. I think especially with things like we were talking about earlier, pollution. I mean, we can make a big change by making little changes in our everyday lives.
Eitan: I think we have to hope and want a more peaceful future, a more clean future, a safer future, and overall a better future.
JB: I would vote for you if you were running for president.
Molly: My hope for the future is that people, like Allie said, learn to take action and to make the world a better place than it is now, because even if it is a great place to be and a great place to live, it can be better in so many ways. We have the power to change that.
Liza: My hope for the future is for everyone to feel safe and accepted in their community, and if they don’t, to feel like they’re able to stand up and advocate for what they want to change and for how they want to feel. And to know that they can make a change if they try, like Molly and Allie and Kobi and Eitan. Like everyone here said.
JB: You guys are smarter than a lot of adults.